REVIEW: Filmharmonic Project – Yoshitaka Amano’s 1001 Nights (1998)

A Film by David Newman, Yoshitaka Amano and Mike Smith

Yoshitaka Amano is perhaps best known as the chief character designer for the long-running Final Fantasy videogame franchise, although what is actually seen in the games pales in comparison to his masterful watercolor paintings. That is the chief problem with his artwork, it is VERY hard to translate to other mediums, but many tries have been made. Being the character designer for things such as Vampire Hunter D, Angel’s Egg, and Amon Saga, his creative eye has been lent to many anime productions, but as with the videogames, none are actually very close to his artwork. Today, I discovered what is perhaps the ONLY film I’ve ever seen that took his style and re-created it pretty well, and it’s the topic of today’s review: Filmharmonic Project – Yoshitaka Amano’s 1001 Nights from 1998.

“Princess Budu sleeps, and dreams. She dreams of whimsical fairies and a wicked, restless beastial spirit. Her dream is one unmoored from identity and self – perhaps she is the fairy, perhaps those other fairies are other persons also. Also moving through her dream, always recurring in her thoughts is her lover Prince Kamar. The beastial spirit desires Budu; Kamar desires Budu, and she only has eyes for Kamar. Through her dream she floats and fades across an Arabian fantasia of minarets and mosques. These flickering moments, fleeting snatches of slumbered thought, are filled with an intoxicating, ethereal beauty.”

Filmharmonic Project is a somewhat failed multimedia art project that sought to match filmmakers and composers to create artwork that bridges the gap between the art world and entertainment industry. Directors Tim Burton, Renny Harlin and Paul Verhoeven, and composers Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Graeme Revell and Danny Elfman were lined up to participate in the series, with this one being a collaboration between Yoshitaka Amano, Mike Smith (The director), and composer David Newman. Despite the wonderful reviews such as the following, only this one film was created:

Tied to traditional methods and outlooks dating back 200 years (and then some), the institution of the symphony orchestra moved a little further into its own century last week. The conveyance, known as “Filmharmonic” (sorry about that), was the first outing of a newly formed entente between the high-culture, high-flying Los Angeles Philharmonic and its neighbor up the freeway, the Hollywood film industry. The results this first time out: encouraging, promising, delightful.

This is a hard film to review, simply due to its style being somewhat more like a music video than a film. The story is based on one of the many segments of the classic The 1001 Nights (or Arabian Nights) book, specifically one called The Seduction of the Maiden Budou. The 1001 Nights is a collection of stories, all of which revolve around one main plot: a new wife, Shahrazad, must tell her husband, King Shahrayar, a new story every night lest he kill her in the morning. This is based on one of those stories – why this one? I’m not sure. This is the same book that stories like Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor originated from in some form. The viewer simply has to sit back and let the swirling colors, sounds, and enjoy the show. If you are a fan of either version of Disney’s Fantasia, this is somewhat similar in both idea and practice.

What is most impressive is the films use of mixed media, not only utilizing watercolor artwork that is derived from Amano, but CGI, paper puppets, and even line drawings to convey the plot and themes. While something experimental like this is not likely for everyone, if you are a fan of Amano, this is literally the ONLY film that looks like his actual artwork. It’s definitely more of an art film than any typical “anime”, but the combined package of the gorgeous visuals and classical music is not something one comes across everyday. Despite the lack of text or context for the story (which is something I had to look up afterwards) my guess as to what was happening was pretty much spot on, so it conveys its source material pretty well. I think the only thing I had wrong was my assumption that the main character was being haunted by a Djinn, when I guess it was just some run of the mill evil spirit.

It’s a real shame more of these were not made, because as a proof of concept Filmharmonic Project – Yoshitaka Amano’s 1001 Nights is pretty impressive. It has the right mix off all of it’s component elements to not seem pretentious, and runs pretty close to the exact amount of time one would want to watch it. It’s a pretty solid short film, and really shows off different animation styles that still look good today, even CGI elements that somehow don’t look too dated despite being 25 years old. This was well worth a watch, and makes me dream of a day when somebody attempts to create a film today with something like Amano’s gorgeous artwork within. With computers and A.I., I’m sure something is possible.

To watch this short film, click below:

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